How The Atlantic’s CUNY Story Went (So) Wrong
Inadequate fact-checking & the appearance of a conflict of interest blunted focus on CUNY’s two-tiered system.
*UPDATE: This story has been corrected! See explanation at the conclusion.
Both online and in print, The Atlantic has become known for running extremely strong education-focused features. One such example is Nikole Hannah-Jones’ look at school resegration since Brown v. Board of Education, which is a 2015 ASME finalist.
That’s why it was so startling to watch last week as the reporters and editors who had produced a long piece on the City University of New York (CUNY) made not one but two rounds of major corrections to the story published at TheAtlantic.com.
How did it happen? It’s not entirely clear yet. But the events raise familiar concerns about the adequacy of fact-checking procedures, best practices for indicating changes and corrections to readers, and the perception of influence of outside funders in today’s media environment. It’s also just the latest in a worrisome series of errors, omissions, and other kinds of flubs for education-related news stories in the past year or so.
Published on Tuesday the 13th, the original Atlantic piece described a steep decline in enrollment of top-performing minority students at CUNY schools.
The original headline:
When high achievers have no place to go: Star students from immigrant and minority families often find themselves locked out of the City University of New York — a system originally designed just for them.
Co-authored by Columbia University J-school professor LynNell Hancock and education writer Meredith Kolodner, the original piece was challenged almost immediately by CUNY’s Jay Hershenson, who wrote a series of letters claiming the description of student Kenneth Rosario– featured prominently in the opening paragraphs of the original piece and the accompanying artwork — was not accurate, and that only the top five colleges at CUNY have gotten harder to get into for high-performing minority students (not the entire system).
The Atlantic didn’t waste time correcting the original story. The first set of corrections included a headline change, rewrite of the opening paragraphs of the story, and a long note at the bottom of the piece explaining the changes. Rosario had not been rejected from his first-choice schools. The headline and display copy had been written too broadly.
But that was not enough for CUNY — or, it soon became clear, for The Atlantic either.
By Friday — two rounds of corrections and three letters of complaint from CUNY later, the piece had a new headline, new display copy, new art, a main character had been entirely cut out of the piece, and there was a long, long series of corrections listed at the bottom.
The revised headline:
What It Takes to Get Into New York City’s Best Public Colleges: An increasing emphasis on SAT scores is making it harder for black and Latino students to go to CUNY’s top five schools.
The second round of corrections also indicated to readers from the outset (below the headline) that the version they were reading had been changed — notice which had been missing during the first round of corrections.
By then, CUNY wasn’t the only one paying attention to the ever-changing story. A handful of smaller publications including Inside Higher Ed (‘The Atlantic’ Revises Article on CUNY), Capital New York (The Atlantic spars with CUNY), and my own site (Corrected Atlantic Magazine Story Still Not Accurate, Says CUNY; Story Corrections Should Be Indicated At The Top — Right?) had written about the debacle.
The Washington Monthly riffed off the story in a blog post — only to have to correct itself [How a Public College Gives up on the Public). An education-focused publication at Teachers College Columbia University with a publishing partnership with The Atlantic had to update its site with corrections as they came in.
There was at least one major issue left outstanding: the appearance of a potential conflict of interest. David Jones, president and CEO of a local nonprofit called the Community Service Society, was quoted in the original version of the story. Jones is also the chairman of The Nation Institute, the parent body of the Investigative Fund, which provided financial support for the reporting of the story. The Atlantic had removed his quotes in the final version of the piece.*
The student has not responded to repeated attempts to reach him. Neither Hancock nor Kolodner have responded to emails seeking comment. But The Atlantic and others involved in the story-making process have shared some information that gives some preliminary sense of what may have happened —and what didn’t:
MODIFIED FACT-CHECKING: The story-producing process that was used included the usual internal fact-checking between editors and reporters that’s done for freelance online stories, according to The Atlantic’s Anna Bross. But this is a modified process, presumably less extensive than the one many outlets use for in-house and print stories that involves an independent in-house fact-checker poring over every sentence. (The magazine did not contact the school to fact-check the piece before publication, says CUNY’s Hershenson. The Investigative Fund says that it fact-checked the piece extensively.)*
OMISSIONS VS. ERRORS: Errors of fact can be easier to discover and correct than errors of omission. The original story didn’t mis-represent the facts as much as leave key elements — the other places Rosario applied, for example — out. Even an outside fact-checker might not have caught this kind of mistake.
TUNNEL VISION: Though we have not yet heard from the reporters themselves, it sounds like they were focused in on their story to such an extent that they missed surrounding elements. “The reporters were unaware of CUNY’s application ranking system prior to the piece’s publication,” writes Bross.
APPEARANCE OF CONFLICTS: All versions of The Atlantic story noted the outside funding provided by The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. The Atlantic removed Jones’ quotes because they were “out of context” in the corrected version, according to Bross. Alissa Neil, who represents The Investigative Fund, says that The Nation Institute board members like Jones have “no advance knowledge of Investigative Fund stories before they are published and [play] no editorial role.”
CORRECTION VS. RETRACTION: The Atlantic decided against retracting the story entirely (as CUNY) was demanding because, once corrected, the story wasn’t fundamentally compromised, according to Bross.
So there you have it — or at least all of it that we know so far: Inadequate fact-checking, the elusiveness of omissions, and the possibility that reporters get tunnel vision during a long reporting process. Nothing obviously malicious or unethical.
But even when caught and corrected quickly, errors like these create all sorts of havoc. Prospective CUNY students who read the uncorrected version sent out originally may believe mistakenly that they don’t stand a chance of getting in. Those concerned about the decrease in minority students at CUNY’s top schools lose any immediate chance that the issue might be addressed.
“Every journalist fears this,” writes Daniel Luzer at The Washington Monthly. “When you’ve worked so hard on a story and went through such work on a piece to get all of the details right, but then you got something really, really wrong… The piece basically turns into garbage.”
*CORRECTIONS: What would a story about corrections be without corrections of its own? The original version of this story mis-identified Jones as chairman of the Investigative Fund when he’s actually chairman of the Fund’s parent organization, The Nation Institute. Also: Funding for the story came from the Investigative Fund, not the parent organization, and the Fund claims to have conducted extensive fact-checking of its own in addition to The Atlantic’s. Last but not least, it was of course The Atlantic who removed Jones’ quotes, not The Nation Institute.
DISCLOSURES: I have written a handful of pieces for The Atlantic’s education page (and pitched many others). I am a grateful alumnus of the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship program at Columbia University’s Journalism School, which is run by Hancock. I went to Atlantic president Bob Cohn’s rival high school.